Are Colleges Really Preparing Students for the Workforce?

A new survey shows that while higher education typically provides a good foundation for pursuing a future career, it can fall short in providing an up-to-date education that aligns with employers’ needs.

Taylor Moreno
February 2, 2022

John Farrar, industry leader for education at Google, believes the core model for higher education “is being blown up as we speak.”

“The longer the pandemic inhibits, the more comfortable we will get with virtual learning and people will look at it from a return on investment perspective. In a few months, we have pulled virtual learning forward to a place it would have taken us close to a decade to reach,” he said.

“We’re already seeing that the future of education is going to be a student-driven experience, rather than a university-driven one.”

With students placing more importance on career outcomes as a result of their education, programs that allow them to directly apply classroom learning in the field and leverage experiential learning as work experience on their resumes will grow more relevant.

Just before the pandemic, consulting firm BCG collaborated with Google to survey 166 US business executives and interview 18 higher-education professionals to understand how educators and employers could synchronize their efforts to ready students for corporate life.

An earlier report found a huge skills mismatch in the global workforce that is responsible for a sizable loss in labor productivity; researchers estimated that 1.3 billion people around the world have competencies misaligned with the work they perform, including 53.3 million in the US.

“Preskilling—providing employees with the skills they require before they begin their career—is exactly what higher-ed institutions were created to do. Yet only 36% of the business leaders we surveyed believe these institutions give their graduates adequate training,” the authors write.

“Although higher education typically provides a good foundation and mindset for pursuing a future career, it can fall short in providing an up-to-date education that aligns with employers’ needs.”

This is clearly illustrated by the fact that the number of career centers at US colleges that have some sort of partnership with employers is dismally low. 

NACE data shows that in 2019, just 30.5% of career centers had industry partnerships, most of which were restricted to large schools and those with a special academic focus. Although that number has grown steadily from 21.2% in 2011, researchers note that the 2019-2020 academic year was the first one since the recovery following the Great Depression where there was no significant change from the previous year, which could indicate that the higher education ecosystem is nearing a ceiling on partnerships with industry. 

Source: NACE

This is particularly worrying, because if the crisis should have taught us anything, it is that colleges need to be boosting budgets at career centers and enforcing mandates to pursue partnerships with industry that could lead to positive career outcomes for students.

On the other side of the Atlantic, UK universities are striking increasingly innovative partnerships with employers to refine the education programs they offer, leveraging the British government’s apprenticeship levy to cover costs of employing students full time and simultaneously delivering a competitive degree.

A recent example of such an experiential learning partnership is a new apprenticeship program announced between Northeastern University’s UK campus and tech company ServiceNow.

Starting in October this year, students will be working in roles within organizations that require ServiceNow skills and will spend 80% of their time gaining on‑the‑job experience and 20% dedicated learning time to achieve their degree.

“Every company is looking for untapped recruiting options and ways to strengthen career development for their employees. An opportunity to get real workplace experience, develop in‑demand ServiceNow skills, and work toward a university degree is a perfect combination for someone starting or re‑starting their career, and for the companies that are looking to hire them,” Cat Lang, Senior Vice President of Global Education for ServiceNow said in a statement. 

As Lang highlights, a key feature of a successful experiential learning partnership is offering value to both students and employers, who are looking for creative ways to assess and engage new talent for their pipelines.

Christina Jaracz, Northeastern’s Assistant Vice President of Corporate Partnerships, says education that is supplemented with experiential learning and career-building opportunities is a hallmark of the university’s offering.

“Employers want talent that is well-suited for their own organization, so we work with them to create a program that serves as an accessible front door for talent,” she said.

“There are many high-quality jobs in industries where supply isn’t meeting high demand. We work with employers to identify their talent needs and customize a program and certification that supports it. This way our students are developing business skills with imminent, real life applications and they’re also getting experiential learning opportunities and an integrated certification.

Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor and CEO of the University of Northampton in the UK highlights how his university is exploring partnerships with manufacturing firms in places like Mexico and Pakistan to help them “upskill” employees through training programs and by delivering micro credentials. 

In exchange, these firms then offer Northampton students the chance to work on real projects through internships. The university is also creative in networking through the sponsorships it bestows, such as its funding of a local football team that has opened up internship opportunities for students interested in careers in the sports industry.

“COVID has absolutely accelerated the need for education institutions to partner up and bring employment opportunities to students,” Petford said.

“Since universities do struggle to innovate when it comes to connecting with a good network of employers that will do that, working with a startup or career accelerator that can act as a middleman with industry is much easier.”

Taylor Moreno

As a content strategist, Taylor focuses on telling Paragon One’s story through social media content, blog posts, and more! When she’s not creating, you can find her wandering around a foreign city or writing at her local coffee shop.

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